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How To Feed A Fussy Face

New research is helping parents learn how to get their kids to overcome their natural reflex to eschew new foods.

A girl makes a grumpy face at the camera

Photo: zaps06 (flickr)

Studies have shown that toddlers may reject new food up to 15 times before accepting it, while parents tend to give up after only three to five attempts.

I Don’t Like That

It takes lots more encouragement than most parents expect to overcome a kid’s finicky food tastes. Researchers last year found that children will reject a new food 15 times before giving in, though parents tend to throw in the towel after only five or less.

Young children are likely to reject unfamiliar flavors as their taste buds develop. That tendency peaks between the ages of 18 and 22 months, and about 25 to 40 percent of infants and toddlers go through a food fussiness phase. The “neophobia” response kicks in as children start learning to experiment and explore what’s edible or poisonous in the world.

But if handled the wrong way, this natural suspicion of new foods can quickly spiral into picky eating habits that limit food preferences for many years – even through adulthood.

Kids are quicker to spurn vegetables because they taste bitter to sensitive palettes. That means picky eaters are probably losing out on key nutrients for healthy development. The good news is that new research shows parents have a huge influence on whether this initial shunning of new foods grows into lasting habits.

“The problem is that many parents are just unaware of this and so don’t know that a period of fussiness is almost inevitable,” said psychologist Gemma Mitchell of Britain’s Loughborough University, a co-author of a new parental behavior study.

No Pressure, No Food Bribes

Mitchell said the research showed that one of the worst things a parent can do is to demand or coerce fussy eaters. Ultimatums and punishments only aggravate the problem. Pressure can lead to negative associations that don’t go away, and undermines their ability to know when they’re full, which can in turn lead to poor portion control.

“It’s more about expecting it, accepting it and then riding it out. Don’t panic when it happens. Keep offering the refused foods, but do so without pressuring the child to eat it,” Mitchell said.

Bribing a child with promises of food treats and dessert can also cause problems later on. When the child is given free choice later on, they’re much more likely to go for treats.

What Works

  • Baby steps: Repeated exposure and small tastings work best.
  • Modeling: Children who see others eating and enjoying foods are likely to choose those foods. Mitchell plays a game in her own house in which one child has to mimic the other, putting the same foods on the end of their forks.
  • Non-food rewards: Stickers and playful verbal encouragement work far better than sweets.

Mitchell added that using all three of these in conjunction will yield the best results.

Read More:

  • Your Kid Hates Veggies? You May Be To Blame. But It’s Possible To Make Peas More Palatable. (Washington Post)
  • Food Neophobia And ‘Picky/Fussy’ Eating In Children: A Review (Appetite)
  • Common Feeding Pitfalls (Loughborough University)
Chad Bouchard

Chad Bouchard is a veteran reporter and WFIU alum who has covered wild and wooly beats from Indonesia to Capitol Hill. His radio work has aired on NPR, PRI and Voice of America, and his writing has appeared in The Sunday Telegraph and Scientific American’s health magazine, Lives. He has also spent a lifetime gardening, foraging and eating weird stuff.

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